There have been advances in the understanding of the prevalence of child trafficking, particularly with the introduction of modern slavery legislation in 2015. But campaigners said this legislation sat uncomfortably alongside a deliberately hostile immigration system whereby asylum applicants – including those who have been trafficked – can confront an institutionalised culture of disbelief within the Home Office.
They also pointed to changes introduced under the nationality and borders act that have heaped pressure on young victims to come forward quickly or risk weakening their case.
Renae Mann, of the Refugee Council, said the same legislation had taken the process of age-assessing young people away from social workers and handed it to border officials.
Young asylum seekers were particularly fearful now that “those who are not believed can quickly find themselves in detention and issued with a notice of removal to Rwanda,” she said.
Last year there was a nearly 10% rise in the number of child trafficking victims identified in the UK, to a total of 5,468. Over half of these children are British nationals who have been trafficked inside the UK (often exploited by county lines-style drug gangs), with the remainder (2,477) trafficked into the country as Farah was, from Somaliland via Djibouti in the 1990s.
Patricia Durr, chief executive of Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (Ecpat UK), said: “The biggest problem that victims of child abuse have is the fear that they’re not going to be believed. And yet the system has a ‘you prove to me that you are a victim’ approach.”
Farah’s experiences were both shocking and familiar, she added. “He was very reliant on adults to protect him and he was exploited by them. He was groomed to say certain things, had his identity stripped away, and then he was a kind of prisoner in someone else’s home and made to work. Often you think that you’re the only person this has happened to, so to hear somebody like Sir Mo saying ‘this happened to me’ is really powerful.”
The charity is campaigning for more child trafficking victims to be granted discretionary leave to remain; currently only 2% of applicants do. “The rest are pushed through a very hostile and complex asylum process,” Durr said.
The Home Office said victims of child trafficking would be dealt with as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and that 90% of this group were granted leave to remain. However, the discretionary routes are temporary, and cases are reconsidered every 30 months once the child becomes an adult, unless they are granted citizenship. This means some trafficking victims find themselves as young adults being sent back to the country they were taken from as children.
Phil Brewer, who headed the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery unit between 2014 and 2019, and who now works as a specialist adviser on modern slavery, said he hoped the revelations would emphasise the difficulties child victims face in telling their full stories.
“The exploiter will often say: ‘Don’t seek help from the police because you have entered on a false passport, the authorities will just send you back home’. There needs to be greater understanding of why people might not always tell the full truth.”
He warned that the introduction of the nationality and borders legislation earlier this year represented “a step backwards” in terms of how victims of modern slavery are treated. “There is now a requirement for an individual to disclose that they are a victim at the earliest possible opportunity or else it might count against them,” he said.
Rebecca Smith, head of child protection programmes at Save the Children International, said: “People are afraid to report their experiences because they are afraid to admit that they are here illegally. It is telling that it has taken him [Farah] this long to be brave enough to say this, and yet he is the victim here.”
The Home Office said it would not be taking retrospective action against the runner, and would always assume that a child is not complicit in gaining citizenship by deception.
Brewer said he had come across numerous cases of children trafficked for domestic servitude during his time with the police, most notably the case of Emmanuel Edet, 61, a former NHS obstetrician, and Antan Edet, 58, a midwife.
The couple were jailed after keeping Ofonime Sunday Inuk as a “houseboy” for almost a quarter of a century, telling immigration officials he was their teenage son when they arrived from Nigeria in 1989. They changed his name and forced him to work unpaid up to 17 hours a day looking after the couple’s two sons, cooking, cleaning and gardening, a court heard.
Benny Hunter, co-founder of Da’aro Youth Project for unaccompanied young people who have travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, said even for Farah, it was a brave step to tell his story. “The current environment is all about creating a climate of fear for undocumented people – which makes it very scary to come forward. People fear being criminalised.”